A "confrontation in the South China Sea could be more devastating than any wars, any confrontations that you have seen in the region," Tuan said March 23 at a conference held by Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l'Ecole Militaire (IRSEM), a think tank at the French military's staff college.

Vietnam and China have long contested claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands, including last year's dispute over China's attempted oil drilling and clashes between Vietnamese fishermen and Chinese boats. China is also laying claim to territory, which has prompted concern in the region.

The risk extends to European nations, particularly France, which depend on the blue waters for trade with Asia, said French Ambassador Christian Lechervy, permanent secretary for Pacific affairs. French strategic factors are also keyed into the region.

"The fluidity of our forces in the Indo-Pacific is absolutely crucial for our nuclear deterrence," Lechervy said. "The tension arising from maritime and territorial dispute is a deep concern to us and to allies in the region. We have to work in alliance, especially the US and Australia."

China's claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea threatens 70 percent of Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, Tuan said. Vietnam's long coastline prompts a national security issue, "human security" stems from reliance on fishing as a food source, and the government has set a "very bold" 2025 target for the maritime economy to make up 60 percent of the gross domestic product, he said.

"If territorial integrity is not respected, that would hurt the economy," Tuan said. National security, sovereignty and economic independence are key and interlinked security challenges for Vietnam, he said.

"Defense requires lots of money," he said, so there is need for sustainable economic development, prosperity and long-term security.

After the Korean war and during the Vietnam conflict there was economic growth in Asia. But if there were a major clash with China there are reasons for concern, Tuan said.

All southeast Asian countries have a high level of anti-Chinese sentiment, and "all the governments in the region are fully armed," he said. China has not fought in a major naval conflict since 1949. And if there were a conflict, that would hurt maritime transport for France and the European Union.

China faces no real military challenge in the region, said Marie-Sybille de Vienne, vice president for international relations at the Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales, a high-level language institute in France. Taiwan is not recognized as a state, Vietnam's defense budget is less than it should be, and military spending of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is much smaller, she said. Singapore is high-tech but cannot challenge China.

In Japan, the government has stirred public concern over plans to adopt a more active military policy rather than maintaining the Self-Defense Force for national protection, she said.

A lack of agreement between Vietnam and the Philippines over the Paracel and Spratly islands also undermines any talk of a diplomatic challenge to China, she said.

Vietnam also depends on trade with China, with imports doubling in value in 2013 from 2009. Chinese goods accounted for 28 percent of imports and are expected to account for more than half by 2020, she said. That reliance makes it hard to deal with China.

The trade deficit with China could be useful to Vietnam in the way the US deficit gives Washington leverage over the former, Tuan said.

The Philippines is pursuing a legal claim against China, which Vietnam supports, and Manila has put business pressure on Beijing by discouraging tourism between the two countries, he said.

Manila has a security agreement with Washington but Vietnam has no such foreign ally, Tuan said. Vietnam signed an accord with Russia in 1978 but received little support from Moscow.

Vietnam and the Pacific region have a special meaning for France, which ruled the country as a colonial power and also has overseas territories in the North and South Pacific, Lechervy said.

"We are an arms producer, arms exporter in the region," he said. The sale of submarines and fighter jets are directly connected to the South China and East China Sea and the global Pacific challenge."

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the 10 ASEAN members soon after he came to power, but then China clashed with Vietnam and the Philippines.

"China is an uncertain power, it is hard to manage relations," Tuan said.

Asked if China would try to set up a second offshore oil rig, Tuan said, "If it happened again it would be unexpected".

Tuan said he had just come from a meeting of the Brussels Forum, the first time in 10 years the high-level conference had invited a Vietnamese participant, reflecting the concern over the South China Sea.

China in 2013 unexpectedly announced an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, alarming Japan and other Asian states.

China is "a very big, very difficult neighbor," one which has invaded Vietnam nearly 20 times over 2,000 years, Tuan said when asked if Vietnam was following in the steps of the 1938 Munich agreement in failing to be a "front liner" with the Philippines in its legal claim against China. That is the nature of bilateral relations between Vietnam and China, he said.

"Any crisis in the South China Sea would have a big impact on European economies," said Pierre Journoud, IRSEM program head for southeast Asia. Vietnam and France signed in September 2013 a strategic partnership which left "much room for improvement, including political and security areas," he said. "We are, or should be, deeply concerned about Vietnamese security in general and maritime disputes in particular."

Dassault Aviation Chairman Eric Trappier was at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) trade show as the aircraft company hopes to sell the Rafale fighter jet to Malaysia. The twin-engined fighter flew in the daily flight displays. The Malaysian defense minister, however, has said the country's main concern is local insurgency threats.

Airbus Helicopters said March 16 the European company will partner with local partner Korea Aerospace Industries to develop a 5-ton light armed helicopter and a light civil helicopter. The military aircraft is due to enter service in 2022.

Vietnam has bought two Damen corvettes that will be armed with MBDA's Mica VL and Exocet missiles, website La Tribune reported in November 2013.

French state-owned DCNS last year sold six Gowind corvettes to Malaysia, with local assembly with joint venture partner Boustead, a company spokesman said. The local shipyard is also handling service for the country's two French-Spanish Scorpene attack submarines.

Economic growth is a key factor for military power. As 18th-century French marshal general Maurice de Saxe said, when you prepare for war you need three things — money, money and money, Lechervy said.

By Pierre Tran - Defense News - March 26, 2015